“Just Give Them A Pen”

May 21, 2022

There are people on Twitter, like this educationalist, who seem to hate the fact that schools have rules.

Ignoring the question of why the taxpayer is funding people with such low expectations of children to train teachers, I wanted to single out the daftest of the complaints here: the objection to enforcing the rule that pupils in school should have something to write with.

This has been immortalised in… I think it’s a poem… in which child neglect is used as a reason not to enforce rules.

This is performative compassion. It’s all about how the adult feels, rather than what’s best for the child. It’s not actual compassion, because reporting child neglect is the compassionate thing to do. Lowering expectations in order to normalise, or even conceal, neglect is not compassionate. Any school that just assumes its pupils are suffering neglect is a safeguarding risk. Children’s suffering is something to be reported, not something you build into your expectations. That’s not to say that while neglect was being dealt with a school wouldn’t help a child, including help ensuring they are equipped for the day, but there is no obvious benefit to changing what’s expected in lessons.

Assuming we are designing rules for the best interests of the students, not to display our own virtue, the case for rules about equipment is pretty straightforward, if you are familiar with even half-way challenging secondary schools. In fact, one has to assume that people who oppose such rules are imagining a completely unrealistic scenario for challenging schools. They are assuming that occasionally one child forgets a pen, entirely by accident, and politely asks for one at the first opportunity. The teacher immediately lends it. At the end of the lesson they return it without being asked. This might well happen in the most privileged schools.

What actually happens in challenging schools where rules about equipment are not enforced is quite different. Every lesson, several children (usually the ones who are slow to engage at the best of times) will sit doing no work. When confronted individually they say they don’t have a pen. When told they should have one they argue. The teacher lends out pens, which will amount to dozens in a day. It will add minutes to the time it takes to start the lesson. This extra wasted time will take place when the teacher is already very busy, either supervising children getting into the classroom, settling them or setting up the lesson. Few pens are subsequently returned. Several are destroyed. The same routine is then repeated if work requires a pencil, a ruler or a calculator. The teacher ends up buying pens from their own money. The school may well become littered with broken pens.

Of course, if required, teachers can come up with routines to stop this waste of time and resources. Although usually the methods of saving time, waste more resources and the methods of saving resources, waste more time. Regardless, you end up with all sorts of pen lending routines. Requiring pupils to identify their need for a pen immediately. Making a pot of pens available for pupils to collect. Counting pens in and out. Making them swap something they can’t afford to lose (a phone or a shoe, maybe) for the pen. Writing names on the board for students who have borrowed a pen. Even if these routines are effective, they are often more effort for all concerned than simply requiring everyone to bring in a pen.

Often the routines are not effective. After all, what you are doing is lowering expectations. Children should be able to bring a pen to lesson. They often have a pen, they are just wasting time for the sake of it. By lowering expectations you are doing them no favours. You are making them into worse people. In the worst school I worked in for low expectations regarding equipment, it became so normal for pupils to just help themselves to pens, that if you didn’t put a freshly stocked pot of pens out for them, they would rifle through your cupboards and desk looking for pens. Because replacing pens was expensive, and the departmental stocks would run out early in the year, some of us would stock up our pens by just picking them up off of the floor in corridors and on break duty. Kids would discard them all over the place, because they were being taught pens were worthless, and that the only person who should care whether they were ready to learn in lessons was their teacher. Nobody was benefitting from these low expectations.

Other experiences showed me the benefits of having a sanction for not bringing in a pen. Something I have experienced many times, as have many other teachers, is the pupil who turns up without a pen until they are reminded there is a sanction for this. Suddenly, they find a pen that they had all along. When I’ve asked some of these pupils why they asked for a pen, many have said “I just couldn’t be bothered to get it out”. What you permit is what you promote so by treating having a pen as optional, you promote this.

The experience that most informs my thinking on this was a school I worked in that changed its expectations. A policy was introduced of giving 45 minute detentions to anyone who turns up to lessons without equipment. Even I think this is too harsh: I’m sure a lighter sanction would have worked. Nevertheless, what I saw was a transformation in expectations. Suddenly, every child had a pen, pencil and ruler. In particular, I remember a pupil who was dyslexic, dyspraxic and deaf who had never brought in a pen to any of my lessons. It would have been easy to just assume “a child like that” couldn’t be expected to manage to bring in a pen. When the detention policy was introduced, he transformed overnight. He brought a pen to every single lesson without fail. As did almost everyone else. I left the school and returned a few years later. The policy had been abandoned, and once again there were kids in the lower years who had never had a pen, but those who had been at the school during the time when the detention policy was in place, remained good at bringing in pens. There are those who believe that you can never get good behaviour through punishment alone. On this issue, I have seen that you can, and you can help form good habits that way too.

There are those who just don’t like rules. There are those who think you can have meaningful rules that you don’t actually enforce. There are those who think kids are basically helpless and hopeless. There are those who think any SEN means a child should be written off as incapable. There are those who cannot imagine that a child would choose to do wrong. There are those who think that enforcing rules is done only due to sadism and that children live in fear of their teachers. However, in the real world, everyone is better off if children bring their own pens in, and if that will only happen through enforcing a rule that says “bring in a pen”, then there’s no good reason not to.

One comment

  1. The saddest aspect of this scenario experienced, is the routine collection at the end of each “lesson”, of broken pens. In addition to the common excuse “too long to get my equipment”, it is an affront to see such wasted resources from those with latest version mobile phones in pocket and fashion trainers on feet, yet fail to be in possession of a single pen. Fortunately, this attitude may be used with that of laboratory safety. If a simple mentality of preparation of stationery equipment is effort, then so will be the effort to plan lessons of practical interest. Analogy often made with building construction site safety: do not expect to be paid if you attempt to enter a site without your safety shoes…

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